How to find unclaimed 401(k) money | Cartoon men © Happy Together/Shutterstock.com

Dear Liz,
My mother died in 2002 and we never asked if she had a 401(k). How can we find out if she had a 401(k) or retirement account? Is there a way to find unclaimed money?
— Pierre

Dear Pierre,
Missing 401(k) money isn’t always easy to find. There isn’t a central depository for these funds like there is for traditional pensions. (The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is responsible for safeguarding pension money when plans are terminated and employers can’t find participants.)

We’ll assume you didn’t come across any 401(k) plan statements while you were clearing out her files. Obviously, if you did, you could call the administrator of the plan to see what happened to the money.

If you still have access to her tax returns, check her W-2 forms. If she made contributions to a retirement plan, you should see them in box 12. You can then contact the employer listed on the W-2 to find out what happened to the money. Even if you don’t have the tax forms, you could call her former employers directly if you know the companies’ names.

If you don’t have her tax returns or her employers are out of business, your task is more complicated. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Database lists plans that have been or are about to be terminated, and it can give you contact information for the administrator responsible for those plans. Plans also are typically required to file Form 5500 with the IRS. If you know the names of her former employers, you can search for contact information at sites such as FreeErisa.com.

National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits MissingMoney.com National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators FreeErisa.com Abandoned Plan Database

Another possibility, if your mother had an account, is that the money has been turned over or escheated to a state unclaimed property department. One place to check is Unclaimed.org, the official site of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, or NAUPA. NAUPA also endorses the site MissingMoney.com.

Employers don’t always escheat unclaimed funds, though, so your next step might be checking the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a subsidiary of a private company called PenChecks that says it’s the largest private processor of retirement checks.

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